Misc 05/07/2021

The Blue Helmets: an increasingly impossible mission

Peace enforcement operations complicate the work of the international force

4 min
Blue Helmets deployed in Central African Republic

BarcelonaThis week the 193 member countries of the UN have reached an agreement in extremis to finance the 12 missions with 90,000 blue helmets that are deployed to stabilize conflicts around the world. All the alarm bells rang on Monday, when it seemed that the 5,460 million euros in the budget to keep them running would not be forthcoming: in fact, the commanders on the ground already had contingency plans prepared in case a hasty withdrawal was necessary. The fact is that the UN does not have an army for its "peacekeeping" operations, but depends on soldiers and the money that countries lend it. And, as in everything else, nothing moves without the agreement of the great powers with the right of veto in the Security Council.

The cannon fodder is provided by the poorest countries: those who contribute the most troops and police are Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal and Rwanda, who thus gain international weight or can simply pay the salaries or improve the training of their troops. On the other hand, the richest countries would rather invest money than put their personnel at risk: the main contributors are the United States (28%), China (15.2%) and Japan (8.5%). But it is not a very high bill either: spending on "peacekeeping" operations is equivalent to 0.5% of the global defence spending. Spain only contributes soldiers to the mission in Lebanon, which involves little danger, although it has intelligence agents in other countries, because it concentrates its troops on NATO and EU missions.

In its 72-year history, UN missions have mobilised more than a million military and police personnel from 125 countries. The first was in 1948, after the first Arab-Israeli war, but disagreements between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War put the brakes on further interventions. "The original idea was to have an international force ready to deploy before two states entered a war or else when, exhausted by conflict, they were ready for a cease-fire and all sides consented to international intervention. All this, with a relatively low use of force and always with total impartiality", Félix Arteaga, a security expert at the Elcano Royal Institute, reminds ARA.

More complex mandates

Afterwards, the mandates evolved towards supervision of cease-fire agreements, mediation and accompaniment in post-conflict political processes, reconstruction of institutions..... After the end of the Cold War, there was a boom in the use of blue helmets. "For a moment it was believed that the UN could fulfil its mandate of avoiding the scourge of war for future generations, managing peace and security issues on a planetary scale, but it was forgotten that the UN is nothing more than a messenger of the international community and that it does not have its own means to enforce the rules of the game imposed after the Second World War", says Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde, a former military officer who directs the Institute of Studies on Conflict and Humanitarian Action.

It was in this post-Cold War phase that the disasters of the dark history of the blue helmets took place: the genocide in Rwanda, from which the international forces withdrew in 1994, and that of Srebrenica, the Bosnian city where more than 6,000 boys and men were killed by Serbian troops when it was under the protection of a Dutch contingent of blue helmets. After those failures, Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened a group of experts to review the functioning of the system. The idea was put forward that the missions had to be multidimensional and also include a civilian aspect. Later on, the initial objective of peacekeeping was shifted to a more diverse agenda, which also includes conflict prevention, peacemaking or the controversial concept of peace enforcement.

Three blue helmets deployed on Lebanon's border with Israel.

Where UN missions have worked best is in entrenched conflicts, such as that of Cyprus (a mission established in 1964 and still in force), with an operation of a thousand people, including civilians and military, who guard the demilitarised zone that separates the Turkish Cypriots from the Greek Cypriots. Others are of doubtful viability, such as the one that has to guarantee the referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara, to which Morocco has already made it clear that it does not intend to agree. In Kosovo there are only 18 uniformed personnel and 342 civilians. The largest and most dangerous missions are in Africa: Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

In the hands of the Security Council

"In Africa there have been partial successes and, statistically speaking, it is proven that their presence has served to reduce the number of civilian casualties and the level of violence. It is obvious that there are problems, because everything depends on the Security Council and the interests of the great powers do not correspond to the places where there is most need, such as Syria, Yemen or Burma", adds Pablo Aguiar, from the Institut Català Internacional per la Pau.

The new missions are increasingly distant from the initial spirit of interposing troops in conflicts where a negotiated solution is possible. "The UN normally ends up intervening on behalf of governments with a comprehensive approach, which also includes humanitarian aid, and this creates problems for NGOs, because populations can be abandoned simply because they are not in government-controlled territory. They are then perceived as one more actor in the conflict and this is problematic, for example, when humanitarian actors have to carry an escort. The problem is that with these military interventions other things are left undone and perhaps if these political and economic resources were used, for example, to reduce external interference, we would see more effective results", points out Alejandro del Pozo of the Delàs Centre for Peace Studies

The sexual abuse scandals, a dark chapter

The image of the blue helmets has been tarnished by the scandals of sexual abuse committed by international troops against the populations where they were deployed. They were denounced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Central African Republic and in Mali.

Also paradigmatic was the case of Haiti, where UN troops had been present since 2004, after the civil conflict drove President Bertran Aristide into exile. The contingent was made up of soldiers from Sri Lanka, Uruguay and Pakistan.

More than two thousand Haitian women, many of them minors, were sexually abused by peacekeepers between 2004 and 2017, a study by the UN itself concluded. The testimonies claim that the military and other officials abused girls as young as 11 years old, taking advantage of the widespread misery. As a result of these abuses were born what are known as little Minustah, in reference to the acronym of the international mission in Haiti. It was also shown that international troops were responsible for the outbreak of cholera that devastated the country after the earthquake.

Elisenda Calvet, professor of public international law at the University of Barcelona, recalls that after this "the UN established a mechanism for complaints and transparency about abuses and wanted to promote the entry of women in the troops and in places of command. But the organization has never recognized its responsibility, and the problem is that countries, before sending them to a place, claim that the troops have immunity".